Five O’clock Shadow, Redefined

It was no ordinary day.  I was flying to Dallas for processing after being hired as Chief of Photographic Services to the tiny atoll of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  It was the spring of ’89 and my consulting business had taken some serious hits from the recent recession, so I was grateful for the chance to apply my photographic and leadership skills on this “exotic” Navy base for a year.

Sunlight was streaming into the plane and I was lost in a daydream, while looking around and enjoying the play of light and shadow within the cabin. Slowly, though, an odd feeling came over me.  Something wasn’t quite right but what was it?  I felt OK physically and emotionally, yet something was amiss.  Then it hit me: the light was coming from the wrong direction!

We had just gotten to cruising altitude after lifting off from Colorado Springs and if we were, in fact, headed towards Dallas, we would have been flying in a southeasterly direction.  At 10 a.m. the sun should have been coming in from roughly a “2 o’clock” angle.  It was not.  It was coming from a “5 o’clock” angle.  Once I realized that I got even more unsettled and signaled a flight attendant.  At my gesture she leaned over and I whispered, “Uh, this might sound kinda odd, but where is this plane headed?”  Well, she straightened up and in a voice loud enough for everyone within 5 rows to hear, she said, ”Chicago.”  (thankyouverymuch)

At this point nobody within earshot was talking; they wanted to know where our little suddenly-not-so-private conversation was headed.

My reply, through a very red face – I swear, my ears must’ve looked like glowing coals (they felt like ‘em) – went something like, “Uh, well, in that case I have a problem” and showed her my ticket.  Right airline, right departure gate and time.  Somehow, I’d managed not to hear the airport PA announce the gate change for the Dallas flight.  (Yes, the story had a happy ending, er, landing… in Dallas.)

If I hadn’t been so sensitized to light – in this case, it’s direction – I wouldn’t have had such a fun story to tell you, right?  What I want you to take away from this amusing anecdote is simply this:  We should never stop learning to see all the nuances of light.

Direction is only one of light’s 5 characteristics. In future posts we’ll explore the other four.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Park your camera in front of one building or landmark and photograph it in the early morning, then in the middle of the day and again late in the day.  The specifics are that (a) the sun needs to be shining on your subject each time (no clouds blocking its direct rays), (b) your camera needs to be in the same exact spot - and at the same height - each time, and (c) use the same focal length on each shot.  In other words, the only difference in each of the 3 images will be the direction of light.

Your goal in this exercise is to see the difference that direction of light has on the visual appeal of your subject – and to realize that the best time to capture a scene is probably not now.  It will most likely be when the light is coming from a different direction.  In time, if you can’t already do it, you will learn to visualize a scene in different light without being able to see that light yet.  When we can do that we’re seeing like photographers!

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